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Highwaymen

(Robert Harmon, USA, 2003)


 


For a moment in the mid 1980s, Robert Harmon seemed like the great hope among new American directors. His The Hitcher (1986) still stands up as an exciting, mysterious, superbly crafted tale of senseless violence on the lonely, open road.

Bu Harmon's fledgling career ran out of steam quickly. In recent years, he has made something of a comeback to regular work, with They (2002) and Highwaymen. But even the best moments of his latest effort merely recall the glory days of The Hitcher.

The fanciful story of Highwaymen will, for many viewers, evoke the pleasant memory of Spielberg's little gem Duel (1971), although it is closer in its details to another telemovie, Abel Ferrara's The Gladiator (1987).

Fittingly for the actor who incarnated Jesus Christ for Mel Gibson, Jim Caveizel here plays Rennie, a hero in the Mad Max mould, bent on revenge. His nemesis is the deranged serial killer Fargo (Colm Feore). The physical disability that Fargo inherited from an earlier stoush with Rennie has inspired him to turn his wheelchair into a Cadillac Eldorado death-machine.

Highwaymen lurches in various directions, but never coheres into a satisfying whole. A mystery element is introduced early but quickly discarded. Molly (Rhona Mitra), the woman who becomes the token between the warring men is provided with her own psychological trauma – she cannot drive – but never becomes a terribly engaging character.

And, in an almost obligatory element for contemporary action movies, the hero's revenge quest raises underwhelming moral questions. Is he going too far? Is he falling in love with the violent thrill of it all? Is he (shudder) really only a mirror-image of the bad guy?

The action set-pieces are, all the same, pretty impressive. What Harmon pioneered in 1986 – taking the filmic language of such scenes to an experimental, almost abstract level – has become awfully standardised in commercial cinema. It is good to be reminded of how well it can be done.

© Adrian Martin May 2004


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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